A DC-3 dream: fleeting as it was

DC-3 pilots

DC-3 pilots–the envy of kids and aspiring aviators for decades.

A confession: almost 60 years ago I wanted very badly to become an airline pilot.

It actually started almost 70 years ago, in 1943. An uncle in Arkansas died. We lived in Queens, in New York City, and my mother wanted to go the funeral. It took a little doing to get a couple of round-trip airline tickets because a priority was required. My godfather was Senator Joseph T. Robinson (D-Ark.) so that was accomplished in short order.

American Airlines flew a DC-3 from LaGuardia to Little Rock (and on to California). It took all day to get to Little Rock with en route stops in Washington, Richmond, Roanoke, maybe Lynchburg, Tri-Cities, Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis. The flight was named the Sun Country Special.

I was nine at the time and was totally smitten by the experience. I even remember the stewardess’s name: Madeline Condon.

The American DC-3s were called Flagships and were named for a state or city where the airline stopped. I later rode on Eastern DC-3s, part of the Great Silver Fleet, and United Mainliners.

When World War Two started, the military took 200 airplanes from the airlines leaving them with 160. The airlines were still able to fly their routes but with less frequency.

By 1953, I was a flight instructor, working at Camden, Arkansas. One day the powers-that-be told us our office would be moved so an airline could have the space closest to the runway. We were also told that the runway would be extended from 3,000 to 3,600 feet because that is what was required for the Trans-Texas Airways DC-3s that would soon start coming to call.

The runway extension was somewhat of a joke. It was squirt and gravel where the runway itself was concrete but it satisfied the need for length though I don’t think anybody ever used it.

Trans-Texas DC-3

Trans-Texas Airways was one of many local service airlines that flew DC-3s in the 1950s.

We had not heard of Trans-Texas before because it just flew in Texas. It was one of thirteen local service airlines that were created and subsidized by the government to make air travel available to folks in smaller cities. The Civil Aeronautics Board regulated all airlines and subsidized many but the local service concept was new and was probably the most strictly regulated. Basically the CAB told them where they could fly, when they could fly, what they could fly, and how much they could charge. They did get to pick the paint job for the airplanes.

Virtually all the local service carriers flew DC-3s but one, Central, started out with eleven new Model 35 Bonanzas. They soon switched to the DC-3.

One day a truck showed up. In it was a non-directional radio beacon, a VHF radio, weather observation equipment, a teletype machine and some baggage carts. The new Trans-Texas station manager was in charge of the installation and did much of the work himself. He soon hired two more employees and they were ready to go.

There were four flights a day, starting with one in the morning that left Shreveport, Louisiana, and made stops in Magnolia, El Dorado, Camden and Pine Bluff, all in Arkansas, before terminating in Little Rock. Then it would go back to Shreveport, making all the stops. The process would be repeated in the evening.

Shreveport to Little Rock took just under two and a half hours. The straight line distance is just over 170 statute miles so all those stops did add time to the trip. If it sounds like a fast car would have been competitive, it might have been except for the fact that there was no Interstate highway system at the time.

Camden was roughly half way and the fare from Camden to Little Rock was $7. Camden to Shreveport was $9.

For the first time, our airport had an instrument approach.  The NDB was on the airport so the TTA pilots would overfly it and then fly a complete instrument approach. There was no radar and no DME so that was the only way to have a point of reference from which to start the approach.

TTA did the weather observations, I think only in support of their inbound flights. I don’t recall the minimums for the approach but would imagine that if an approach was successful, the reported weather was at or above minimums. Likewise if an approach was missed, the reported weather would likely be below minimums.

This was done mostly in uncontrolled airspace so no clearances were actually required. I don’t recall the exact interface between TTA and the rudimentary air traffic control system of the day but do remember them talking about “through clearances” which I presume meant the airline dispatch system approved the approach and departure in the same breath.

DC-3 stewardess

Typical in-flight service aboard a Trans-Texas DC-3.

None of the pilots at the airport had an instrument rating so all this was truly fascinating to us. There was a camaraderie between the locals and the TTA pilots and they shared with us the approach chart in case we wanted to use it. This came with the admonition to stay the hell out of the clouds when they were coming and going.

To me, what they were doing was the finest possible form of flying. It couldn’t get boring, what with all those stops, and the weather wisdom required to run those traps in thunderstorm season (most of the year) was considerable.

I was talking to one of the captains about thunderstorms one day and he told me he had spent many an hour sitting on the edge of the seat, hoping they would miss the maelstrom that is a thunderstorm.  Most of the time they were successful.  If they got into a storm, the way to fly was pretty standard. Trim for the proper speed, keep the wings level, and ride with the up and downdrafts. It was widely thought that if you got into a storm, the best way out was straight ahead. That might well still be true sixty years later.

There was plenty of flexibility in the TTA operation. The airplanes were self-supporting so if thunderstorms ran them off the route, they could land anywhere there was a 3,600 foot long paved strip. There were not too many of those around but I do remember a couple of diversions to Monroe, Louisiana. They would occasionally miss an approach due to low weather, but I remember only a couple of times when they overflew because of a crosswind on our single north-south runway.

The operation was dirt-simple when compared with today. Virtually all information related to the flights was via teletype. There was a message posted giving the times on and off the stops, the estimate for the next stop, the crew (Landers/Ferry/Clark is one I remember) and whether the airplane had a left or a right hand door. TTA had both military surplus DC-3s and some ex-American Airlines aircraft, thus the differences in the door location. That was important so the ground crew would know how to park the airplane.

To keep ground time at a minimum, only the engine on the side with the door would be shut down on most normal stops.  They carried enough fuel to fly the whole trip without adding fuel.

We all lusted for one of the front seats of a TTA DC-3 and we asked their pilots about that possibility. It was between none and none. They didn’t have a lot of pilots, probably about fifty at the time, and virtually all were ex-military. Waiting in the wings were squadrons more with DC-3 and weather flying experience. It would be an impossibly long line in which to stand.

That was the last thought I gave to an airline job. I got involved in the aviation magazine business and the rewarding career that I found there made me happy the airline option wasn’t quite available to me when I wanted it.

The last DC-3 airline flight that I rode was on Central Airlines, from Kansas City to Wichita with a stop in Topeka. I had left Newark on TWA and was supposed to change to another TWA flight but it was delayed.

I walked down the line of ticket counters to see if I could do better. Central had that DC-3 that was about ready to go and they had a seat.

It was a dark and stormy night and we flew all the way through an area of widespread thunderstorms. There was lightning and thunder and heavy rain when we were on the ground at Topeka.

Trans-Texas stewardesses

Trans-Texas stewardesses had one of the most interesting jobs in aviation.

En route, the stewardess served drinks despite the inclement weather. We never hit any really bad turbulence and when we got to Wichita I walked around to the front of the DC-3 to give the pilots a thumbs-up. That was when I learned that this DC-3 didn’t have the weather radar that had come to most airliners by then. No radome. Those pilots were the last of a breed, never to be replaced.

The object of all the local service carriers was to generate enough revenue to fly without subsidy from the Feds. That was not going to happen with DC-3s on short hops so they started flying larger airplanes and the CAB allowed longer legs.

Most eventually got jets, DC-9s mostly, but by then the airlines were deregulated and the mergers made most of the local service names go away. For a fact, Trans-Texas Airways is a granddaddy of today’s Continental.

The local service airline system was a noble experiment, destined not to last for a number of reasons. One was the fact that the airplane they could afford, the DC-3, was relatively primitive. We pilots get all misty-eyed when we think about the grand old Douglas but airline passengers hated it. The steeply sloped aisle, the lack of pressurization and air conditioning, the relatively slow speed, and the not too roomy seats were all points of contention.

Most of the locals flew the airplane with 28 seats, seven rows of four, where the major carriers flew them with 21 seats, seven rows of three. On speed, if following a highway with a strong headwind, most pilots would fly directly over the highway so the passengers couldn’t look down and see the cars passing the airliner.

If you are interested in the history of local service carriers, “Airlines for the Rest of Us” by Stan Solomon is available from Amazon for $3.99 in the Kindle version. It is a truly interesting book for airline buffs.

25 Comments

  1. James Shaddox says:

    I have fond memories of riding on Central Airlines DC-3s between Dallas Love Field and my grandparents’ home in Harrison, Arkansas circa 1962-63. Loud, bumpy, and seemingly close to the ground, but a ton of fun for a kid who had never been on an airliner before. Later Central switched to turboprop Convair 540s on that route which, while faster, just didn’t seem to deliver the same visceral thrill for me.

    Love the publicity photo of stewardesses on the tail of one of the “Tree Top Airlines” planes!

  2. Ed Bolli says:

    I use to ride the Ozark Airlines DC 3 in the mid 1960′s from Columbia, Missouri to Tulsa where I went to flight school. Student fare was $6.50 one way. The flight stoped in Jefferson City, Springfield, Joplin then Tulsa. I marveled at way the stuardess would serve drinks between each of these stops. Columbia to Jefferson City was only 30 miles, she was sure fast.

  3. Dan Baxter says:

    My one flight in a DC-3 occurred in 1965. We had ridden Central’s Convair from Fort Smith to Fayetteville with an extremely rough landing. When we arrived in Kansas City on that stormy Sunday night, they announced that the Convair was being grounded and some of us would transfer to a DC-3. The First Division soldiers coming back from leave to ship out to Vietnam went by bus. Those of us who were booked into Salina, etc., stayed with the plane. I helped load baggage and shift it when we deplaned. We dodged thunderstorms.
    The stewardess blamed it all on a rookie who put her hat on the bed that morning while packing–bad luck!
    It was truly memorable in every way.

  4. Charles Hester says:

    I grew up in El Dorado, Arkansas. My father was a flight instructor at South Arkansas Regional Airport at Goodwin Field. Between the age of 5 and 9, I spent a lot of time at Goodwin Field on summer weekdays and weekends, as well on weekends when school was in session. Even though that was a long time ago (I’m 52 now), I still remember the DC-3s coming and going. I also remember a time when a passenger had arrived late for his flight, and the DC-3 had already been taxied out to the runway and was ready for takeoff. A radio call to the pilots of the DC-3 alerted the pilots that a late passenger had arrived, at which point the DC-3 returned to the terminal to pick him up. Imagine that happening today. The entire airfield operation was laid back and there was zero security. I had a mini-bike at the time (Briggs and Stratton engine with centrifugal clutch and scrub brakes), and I was allowed to ride it practically anywhere on the airport grounds (taxiways and runways excluded). Had I ventured out on a taxiway or runway, dad wouldn’t have been happy and swift punishment would have ensued. But at Goodwin Field in the late 1960′s, no one would have known or likely cared.

  5. Dave Oberg says:

    My Dad was a crew chief on C-47′s in the Aleutians right after WWII, so they’ve always been a favorite of mine. I got my first ride in one the summer of 1967 on a Wien Airlines flight from Fairbanks to Bettles Field. In the early ’90s I flew one year for Frontier Flying Service out of Fairbanks, and had the good fortune to fly right seat in their DC-3, with the legendary Jorgy Jorgensen in the left seat showing me the ropes. What a fantastic experience that was! Getting a type rating in the Gooney Bird is on my bucket list, and I’m anxious to check that one off.

  6. My first DC3 flight was on a mail run from DaNang to Hong Kong. I was an orderly room clerk and had the joyful priviledge of catching a ride and having a great weekend. I still consider myself lucky to have been born in an era of transition from prop to turbo prop and Jet and to have flown in most of the earlier airliners.

  7. TonyB says:

    We flew DC3′s sans radar from ’87-’97 in the pursuit of aerial commerce. We picked our way through by instinct ,hope,and the grace of God. When on occasion we were in the thick of it ,dropping the gear had the effect of stabilizing the ride , (sort of a keel effect like a boat),and slowing us down to maneuvering speed at the same time. Now after finally arriving in the jet age I avoid CBs by a country mile just like everyone else. I used to fly DC3′s for love and money, now just for love.

  8. D gill says:

    I understand the love affair with DC-3s

    But my experience with them is very recent. I work for a company that makes US military equipment and we often rent a DC-3 to flight test our equipment. The DC-3 is reliable comfortable and carries plenty of equipment and Engineers to get our job done. The company we rent DC-3s from has three of them. We have flown all over the united states in them and love them. I even got to get some Dual instruction multi engine time logged in my Pilot log book flying right seat as one of the company DC-3 pilots is a CFI. And for those passengers that didn’t like the ramp walking up to “first class” due to the tail dragger effect, they are missing out on some good leg exercises! A great airplane perhaps the best design ever and still flying anywhere anytime to this day, over 70 years after they were built. The radial engines are awesome. And the short and soft field capabilities are outstanding. If you get a chance to fly in a DC-3, take it !

  9. Keith Bumsted says:

    Great story, Dick. Many folks I suppose once contemplated a flying career with the airlines but for one reason or another it didn’t happen, and now, years later are thankful for unanswered prayers! I didn’t fly DC-3′s either as a pilot or passenger, but my admiration for the airplane was immense after seeing the Eastern Airlines version in the Smithsonian with over 50,000 hours on the airframe. Numerous friends with DC-3 experience are only too happy to regale listeners with their adventurous tales.

    One of my fondest recollections of the plane has to do with the sound of those big round engines starting up — coughing, snorting, wheezing and finally smoothing out into that unmistakable purr.

    One night years ago at Port Columbus, Ohio after settling up with Lane Aviation for the fuel and parking fees for my Bonanza preparing to head back to PHF at Newport News, VA, my passengers and I were walking across a very dark ramp out to where our plane was tied down and, somewhere out in the darkness (we knew not where), a DC-3 was being brought to life. The sound of those big engines being fired up was pure romance. I stopped, set the bags down and just listened to the music. I can still hear it playing in my head!

  10. Warren Smith says:

    I rode a United DC3 to LAX from SAN and return back in ’53. I flew as a Flight Engineer on USAF C54s [the four engine version of the DC3]out of Japan during the 1951 era of the Korean War on the Korean airlift with the 315th Air division. The Greek AF sent a squadron of C47s as their UN contribution. We called them “The Galloping Greeks,” as they would operate anywhere, off of empty farmland, dirt roads, or whatever it took. TheDC3 was and still is a venerable airframe, and there are still a large number of them in daily use. Keep ‘em Flying.

  11. SkyGuy says:

    To try to be an airline pilot these days….is…well…almost…slim chance.

  12. Bill Reyer says:

    I was five in Sep 43. Mom and my baby brother and I having been bumped once finally boarded an Eastern DC3 for Atlanta out of La Guardia. We were being sent by Uncle Sam to live out the War with my Dad in Ft. Benning, GA where he was stationed. I will never forget the experience. I got to be a passenger in several other DC3s but it was never like that first time.

  13. Ronald Usher says:

    As a young executive in Austarlia I travelled in DC3′ then we graduated to DC4′ then DC4B’s then electras, viscounts, and then the big time DC9 2pod on the tail JETS! What an eara, Now I’m happy wandering about the sky in the old piper cherakee 180 D (PA28)

  14. Ian Corby says:

    My first flying job after leaving Oxford Air Training School(UK) in 1973 was with Briitsh Island Airways on DC-3′s flying from Gatwick with mail and newspapers for British Forces in Germany and to the Channel Islands.After leaving BIA to join BCAL and British Airways I continued flying a ‘DAK’ privately for Martin Baker ( G-APML ) until the 1980′s.
    The last DC-3 I saw was a South African reg Turbo DC-3(in Ndolo Zambia)used for survey work even had an apu!

  15. Sy Commanday says:

    For those of us that have lived in Southern Louisiana and flew from Lake Charles, we knew Trans-Texas Airlines as “Tree-Top Airlines” since they never climbed much above 5,000 feet. As a joke, we used to ask the pilots (before the days of locked cockpits) why they bothered to retract the landing gear since it was only minutes before letting down to the next stop.
    On one memorable flight from lake Charles to New Orleans with a stop in Lafayette, La, the pilot could not find the runway in a low ceiling so after the third missed approach he left for New Orleans. I could look down and read the street signs in Lafayette and tried to guide the pilot but he got angry and told me to sit down and shut up.

  16. Ed R says:

    Got my PPL in 1974, influenced greatly by the site of DC3′s flying over my home on approach to DAY in the 1950′s. I never got to ride in one with actual seats, but eventually made hundreds of skydives from the old Douglas workhorse. Left a couple of them earlier than planned due to engine failures, and jumped several times with four DC3′s in close formation. What an amazing airplane…

  17. Doyle Frost says:

    Thanks for a great story I love that old bird. Worked part time with a GREAT DC-3/C-47 mechanic/pilot, and had the good fortune to ride right seat in a couple that he had worked on. A couple of the best flights I remember, Especially when the pilot said “You have the controls.”

  18. Warren Smith says:

    Just one more:
    The scene is at the Santa Monica airport sometime in the far distant future… say, 2050. A small crowd has gathered to witness the retirement of the very last DC-3. As the master of ceremonies concludes the presentation… that old familiar drone causes everyone to look toward the sky above. Behold, there goes yet one more.

  19. M Saba says:

    Good article. Love the DC-3s. I started flying in ’70s as a teenager with a love for all things in avaition. When I got out of school I went to work for TTA(then Texas Internaional Airlines) where I got involed with restoring a DC-3. This was after the meger with Continental. I remember getting to go with my wife and others from Houston to Oshkosh airshow. It was resorted to the old airlines conf. As we showed the aircraft I realized what an impact the DC-3 had made for so many peoples lives. The joy of those to just get in it look around that never got to fly in one.

  20. James Van Doren says:

    Hi Dick,

    It sounds likely that you may be a fan of Ernest Gann’s classic “Fate is the Hunter”. I have an ole dog-eared copy that I re-open quite often; each chapter is a distinct story dedicated to his fellow pilot’s, many of which paid the ultimate price while starting and building the fabulous system that we enjoy today. Good old Douglas-3 WAS the founding equipment.

  21. Dick Collins says:

    I have read “Fate” several times and it is wonderful. So are all of Ernie’s other books.

  22. TonyB says:

    Fate , is the DC3 bible, it was required reading for my freightdog brethren , in fact back in my Douglas days I used to keep a copy in my flight bag

  23. Ed Griffith says:

    Though I have never been in a DC-3, friends who have would disagree on just one thing. “…and the not too roomy seats were all points of contention.” Have you flown non-first class lately? The pictures and remembrances indicate more room then than now. I also believe it was more fun.

  24. Jeff Tait says:

    Flying as co pilot on DC-3′s in 1969, bringing real estate prospects into a development in southwest Florida, had my first, and worst, experience with thunderstorm cell penetration. It was near the La Belle VOR at 10,000 ft, and for about a half minute or so (seemed much longer), there was not a pilot aboard the aircraft, only passengers. I have no idea how the aircraft stayed in one piece, but of course it did. Popping out of that dark mass into bright light, I still recall vividly all these years later. On the ground later, a walk around revealed missing inspection panels under both wings. What a tough airplane!

  25. will anderson says:

    I flew a Delta Airlines DC-3 on the Atlanta to Columbus,Ga. route in 1957. It was a night flight and my seven year old twin brother and I, and an older lady were the only passengers. After we had our Cokes, the typically pretty and pleasant stewardess told us that the Captain would like for us to join him in the cockpit. We went up the aisle grinning from ear to ear. The captain showed us the basics and then put me on his lap and my hands on the yoke and had me make a gentle bank to the left of approximately 5 degrees and then level the wings. After several minutes of left seat time it was time to iniate the approach and for us to return to our less exalted seats. I am not sure my grandparents ever did believe that I helped fly us there.